Failure to renew sales tax in Mahoning County would put government in jeopardy

In January and again this month, we took Mahoning County officials to task for being so out of touch with the region’s economic condition that they thought nothing of raising the pay of generally well-compensated government workers.

Here’s what we said in one of the editorials: “Granting pay raises to public employees in the midst of an anticipated general fund shortfall is arrogant. It says to private-sector taxpayers struggling to make ends meet that their economic well-being is less important than that of public employees.”

We have long believed that government payrolls should reflect what’s occurring in the private. Why? For the simple reason that government is not self-sustaining; it depends on taxpayer dollars to survive. Almost 80 percent of the operating budget is swallowed up by wages and benefits, which means pay hikes are a sure way to get the public roiled.

That’s what happened in January when the county board of elections granted a 3 percent increase to its employees. But in the face of extensive Vindicator reporting that triggered widespread criticism of public sector, the board of elections withdrew the raises.

But then in April, this newspaper again revealed that more than 700 county employees received increases of more than 3 percent in the last two years. They were for a variety of reasons, including pension fixes.

Thus, our condemnation of the decision-makers who see nothing wrong in fattening the wallets of their workers while those in the private sector continue to reel from the national economic recession that began in late 2008.

Against that backdrop, readers will undoubtedly wonder why this newspaper supports the renewal of the 0.5 percent sales tax — Issue 2 on the May 6 primary ballot.

The answer we offer today is the same as it was in May 2010 when this tax was put up for renewal for five years. It expires in September 2015.

“The voters in Mahoning County have it in their power to throw the county into chaos,” we said then.

The county collects two half-percent sales taxes, one of which is permanent. The second one up for a vote next month would also be permanent. The change from a five-year to a continuous period is just as controversial as the pay raises granted in the midst of a recession.

We certainly find merit in the argument that having the tax on the ballot every five years forces the county commissioners and other government officials to justify the expenditure of tax dollars to the public.

That said, we believe there’s a strong case to be made for permanency. It enables the commissioners, who control the general fund purse strings, to plan for the future and to undertake long-range budgeting. Thirty county departments depend on the general fund, with the criminal justice system — the sheriff’s department, the jail, juvenile division and various courts — accounting for more than 70 percent of the $50.2 million general-fund budget for 2014. The two sales taxes generate about $31 million; the rest comes from investment income, the state Local Government Fund allocation and federal funds.

Revenue losses

A comparison of 2008 with 2013 shows that the general fund lost $3.2 million in investment income, $2.9 million in state funding and $4.4 million from housing federal prisoners in the county jail.

We are well aware that if the renewal is turned down in May, the commissioners will be able to place the tax before the voters in November and then in May 2015, if needed.

There’s an argument being made that residents should vote “no” next month, thus sending a message to commissioners Anthony Traficanti, Carol Rimedio-Righetti and David Ditzler that a permanent tax is a deal breaker.

Our concern with such thinking has to do with the attitude of the voters. Once residents say “no,” it becomes much easier to say it again a second and third time.

The risk of the 0.5 percent sales tax being wiped off the books is just too great.

Readers will remember what occurred in the county when one of the taxes was repealed some years ago. Not surprisingly, the criminal justice system was hardest hit, with the sheriff’s department being forced to layoff deputies and close pods in the county jail. The resultant prisoner overcrowding triggered federal lawsuits and judicial consent decrees.

It should be clear by now that renewal of the sales tax is a public-safety issue. Mahoning County cannot risk having to keep criminals on the streets because the jail is short-staffed.

Our endorsement of the renewal, however, should not be viewed as forgiveness for the poor judgment and mismanagement on the part of some officeholder and managers.

We expect the commissioners to lead the effort to fix what’s broken, especially the payroll that is the root of the public’s anger.

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